Wednesday, January 05, 2005

More Women Opting Against Birth Control, Study Finds

Check out this Washington Post article. The theme is that more adult women aren't using birth control: A recent government survey found that "the number of women who had sex in the previous three months but did not use birth control rose from 5.2 percent in 1995 to 7.4 percent in 2002." So betwen 1995 and 2002, all of 2.2% of women started having sex without using birth control.

Now the most obvious explanation is: They chose to do so. Perhaps they actually want to have children. But this explanation is barely even mentioned in the article.

Instead, the article is wholly written in an alarmist tone. It seems to assume that the natural state is for 100% of women (and/or men) to use birth control religiously, and if even a few percent of them do otherwise, there must be some sinister explanation.
The December report did not tabulate unintended pregnancies, though preliminary information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a slight increase in the birth rate in 2003, most notably in women older than 30.
The above contains a hint at a possible explanation, although the article doesn't pick up on it. Women over 30 -- and particularly over 35 -- have more trouble conceiving than younger women, and it is common knowledge that people are putting off marriage and childbirth later than ever.

So maybe when people put off childbearing until age 33, they then have to spend several years (on average) going without birth control in order to have any results (whereas if they had conceived earlier in their lives, they would have spent fewer years without birth control). Could be, right? And if the birth rate for the over-30 age group has risen, that might be because more women are spending more years going without birth control.

But who knows? The article doesn't explore that possible explanation at all.
It is possible, said Paul Blumenthal, that many more women are trying to conceive and thus have stopped using contraception. But the Johns Hopkins University professor said it is more likely that more women have found the cost of birth control burdensome.
That's the article's only nod at the idea that if 2.2% of women stop using birth control, it just might be because they were trying to conceive. But then the idea is immediately dismissed, because it is "more likely" (why? who knows?) that the "cost of birth control" is too high. This strikes me as unlikely. A month's supply of condoms costs about as much as a meal for two at Arby's or McDonald's. (Yes, condoms are relevant: The article mentions earlier that the government survey asked women about their partners' use of condoms.)

UPDATE: A conscientious reader found a link to the actual survey (PDF file). Lo and behold, it distinguishes between women who aren't using contraception because they are specifically trying to conceive (4.2%) versus women who just aren't using contraception (7.4%). So that undermines part of my analysis somewhat. Still, as the reader points out, it's quite plausible that a number of women are not actively seeking pregnancy, but aren't going out of their way to avoid it either -- by their own deliberate choice. Or perhaps a few women have been affected by recent reports that oral contraceptive use may increase the risk of breast and cervical cancer. (Another slight possibility: On page 49 of this Pew report, the percentage of the population that is Catholic went from 23% in 1996 to 24% in 2002 -- perhaps the extra 1% is made up of immigrants or converts who are more likely to adhere to Catholic teaching on contraception.) And it's still true that the piece's alarmist tone is very one-sided.

Stuart Buck


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given the time period (1995-2002), another possibility is that more women who don't need birth control are having sex. With the arrival of viagra, the percentage of 70- and 80-year-old men who are still sexually active has undoubtedly increased a great deal. That means that 65- and 75-year-old wives are now much more likely to be sexually active than they were 10 or 20 years ago (at least those without much younger lovers). Not to mention all the postmenopausal widows and divorcees who are now less likely to have to sleep alone . . . .

Dr. Weevil
(not anonymous, but can't be bothered to sign in)

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I read the survey, one could faithfully follow Catholic teaching and still be included in the group of women using birth control. (Forms of natural family planning were among the options listed for birth control.)

I agree with your reader. It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that there's been an increase in the number of women neither actively seeking pregnancy (in the sense contemplated by the survey) nor actively seeking to avoid it--stuck in that intermediate area, but deliberately. I know a woman fitting that description. Very well. She's carrying our fourth child, the result of what she'd call "not not trying". The experts may not approve, but we're very happy.

12:13 AM  

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